If you watch any of the “Making Of” featurettes on the Samurai Fiction DVD, you’ll probably hear the words “cool,” “funky,” and/or “peaceful” mentioned more than once by the narrator as he describes the film. Naturally, most people probably don’t associate those words with samurai movies. But then again, Samurai Fiction is not your typical samurai movie.
While it certainly has one eye focused squarely on the conventions of samurai (chanbara) cinema, it also has one eye focused on modern audiences. As such, the movie is an exciting and eminently enjoyable postmodern pastiche of classic Japanese film archetypes and MTV-generation style and wit. And what’s perhaps most amazing is that it’s done so in a way that’s both very respectful of the former and highly accessible for the latter.
The plot is simple enough. A ronin (masterless samurai) named Kazamatsuri has stolen the ceremonial sword of the Inukai clan. Without that sword, a gift from the Shogun, the clan stands to lose quite a bit of honor, and might even be dissolved (or worse). Frantic, the clan orders a replica to be made, in hopes of fooling the Shogun. However, the son of a clan official, Heishiro, is appalled by the clan’s course of action, and vows to kill Kazamatsuri and retrieve the sword. With his two childhood friends in tow, the brash young samurai heads off in pursuit of the ronin.
But when he finally encounters Kazamatsuri, he’s completely unprepared for the man’s incredible skill. Only the chance intervention of another samurai, Mizoguchi, saves his life, but not before one of his friends is killed and the other sorely wounded. Unable to return home due to his own injuries, he is forced to stay with Mizoguchi until he heals.
Meanwhile, Kazamatsuri has arrived at a nearby town and falls in with one of the local gangs. The leader, an ambitious woman named Okatsu (played with considerable flair by Mari Natsuki) is quite taken by the mysterious and deadly swordsman, and hopes to entice him into helping her expand her territory.
Although he finds himself drawn to Mizoguchi’s idyllic, peaceful life (and falling in love with Mizoguchi’s daughter, the lovely and gentle Koharu), Heishiro still feels dutybound to track down Kazamatsuri and kill him. Much to his surprise and chagrin, Mizoguchi refuses to help him and even threatens to stop him, claiming that violence and death will solve nothing. Nevertheless, Heishiro is determined to bring back the sword. When he learns of Kazamatsuri’s whereabouts, Mizoguchi steps in, even though it threatens to draw him back into a violent lifestyle he left behind long ago.
Now admittedly, those last few sentences put a somewhat ominous spin on the film. But Samurai Fiction is not a dark film by any means. The word “parody” gets thrown around quite a bit when describing Samurai Fiction, but it’s a parody in the way that a film like Galaxy Quest (yes, I am referring to the Tim Allen film) is a parody of Star Trek. Both contain a certain tongue in cheek-ness, and certainly poke fun at their targets, but it’s obvious that both are loving tributes made by genuine fans.
In the case of Samurai Fiction, writer/director Hiroyuki Nakano obviously brings out all of the best things about samurai cinema, while also putting a hipper, more modern spin on it for younger audiences. A much greater emphasis is placed on concepts of peace and harmony, represented by the Obi-Wan Kenobi-esque Mizoguchi, who tries to show the impetuous Heishiro a better path through life. This is contrasted with the cold, merciless Kazamatsuri, who seems to grow even colder and more malevolent as he entertains more worldly pursuits during the film’s course.
Nakano, who got his start directing music videos, brings quite a bit of visual flair to the movie, which certainly ups the “cool” and “funky” factors. For starters, it features some striking black and white cinematography, an homage to classic samurai cinema like the films of Akira Kurosawa (of whom Nakano is a fan). But he also uses color in small, but impactful ways — such as using sudden flashes of red whenever someone is killed. Nakano resists doing any crazy editing (he reserved that for the disasterous Red Shadow), but he occasionally throws in a visual trick or two, and always to great effect.
Nakano also knows his way around a camera, and as such, Samurai Fiction is full of gorgeous shots, especially some amazing crane shots. In one of the movie’s most beautiful and well-choreographed scenes, the camera follows two ninja sent by the Inukai clan to dispose of Kazamatsuri as they scale a seaside cliff. The camera moves up the cliff to track alongside Kazamatsuri as he strolls across the cliff, up and over, and finally settles behind him in a shot of the ocean. It’s a beautifully smooth shot, and one I love watching every single time.
Cast-wise, the film is excellent. Mitsuru Fukikoshi is great as the brash yet naive Heishiro (his facial expressions and pratfalls are superb), Tomoyasu Hotei projects the right amount of badass-ness as Kazamatsuri, and Morio Kazama has some wonderful scenes as the learned Mizoguchi. Likewise, the supporting players are all uniformly excellent, from Tamaki Ogawa as the beautiful Koharu to Mari Natsuki’s conniving Okatsu to Hiroshi Kanbe as Okatsu’s bumbling righthand man, Gosuke. And there are a whole cast of memorable extras and cameos to boot.
And adding a nice bit of anachronistic flair to the movie is Tomoyasu Hotei’s score. Hotei is one of Japan’s most famous rock musicians (you might’ve heard his song, “Battle Without Honor Or Humanity,” in the Kill Bill, Volume 1 trailer), and his score ranges from searing metal guitar solos to acoustic folk, from funky dance numbers to pastoral electronic pieces. There are moments when the music does seem a touch out of place (I don’t immediately think of hot guitar riffs when I see samurai drawing their katanas), but more often than not, it’s unexpectedness does lend a very “funky” vibe to the film.
My first exposure to Nakano came through the aforementioned Red Shadow, which was an absolute mess, to put it kindly. It follows along the same lines of Samurai Fiction, that being a postmodern reworking of Japanese cinema (in this case, involving ninjas) with a decidedly more modern and peaceful bent. However, Red Shadow went too far overboard into parody, such that it’s only redeeming qualities are the presence of Masanobu Ando (Adrenaline Drive, Battle Royale) and the lovely Megumi Okina (Ju-on) in the lead roles.
However, with Samurai Fiction, Nakano got it completely right, striking the perfect blend of parody and homage, fluff and depth. Samurai Fiction can be enjoyed as just an offbeat and stylish samurai movie, but there is a bit more beneath the surface. Unfortunately, after such a promising start, it looks like Nakano’s career has been taking a slight nosedive. Hopefully, he can pull out of it soon, and get back to making films as effortlessly entertaining as this one.